Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Litmus – Ra Page (Ed.) ***

A number of authors have attempted the difficult task of writing fiction that is used to explain science and it almost always fails. It’s just incredibly difficult to do well. Either the fiction isn’t good enough, or the science isn’t good enough – or the fiction is so obscure that it simply puts the reader off.
I confess, when I saw this book and got excited about reviewing it, I misunderstood what it was. The subtitle is ‘short stories from modern science’ so I thought it would be like Tania Hershman’s excellent collection of short stories The White Road, which takes science news as first seed of an idea for a story, but then provides a straightforward piece of fiction or science fiction. That works wonderfully well. But the approach that this book takes is much more directed to getting a scientific message across, and it suffers because of it.
What Litmus provides (and this is why it has made it into this site) is a series of short stories that are, in essence, historical fiction based on history of science. Each typically describes a key scientific moment, or someone being influenced by a key moment in scientific discovery. Each story is then followed by an essay that explains the significance of that moment and/or person in science.
In theory this could have worked very well, but I found most of the stories stiff and not particularly interesting reads. Where they put information across, it seemed forced – and when they didn’t, there didn’t seem a lot of point in the story. Then you would get the rather worthy essay, often unnecessarily deferential to the fiction it supported, which turned the whole thing into something that seemed like a school exercise rather than either a collection of good short stories or useful popular science.
There were some good stories – I’d pick out Tania Hershman’s, inspired by the glowing jellyfish gene. There were some mediocre stories, and some that seemed trivially pretentious (Stella Duffy’s piece, for example). Just to take one specific example in a bit more detail, there is a story set by Michael Jecks called Special Theory. Set in Bern, where Einstein worked in the Swiss patent office, it is an interaction between an unhappy British physicist, who is an Einstein fanboy, and a waitress. It sort of works as a story, though it’s a bit plonking in its conclusion. But I wasn’t comfortable with the historical context (several of the ‘facts’ about Einstein are dubious) nor, for that matter, that a physics professor would regard Einstein like a teenager looks to a pop star. The professor would know very well that Einstein’s contribution in special relativity was not the unique, light bulb moment he seems to suggest, and for that matter that Einstein was only one contributor to the development of the theory, not the sole, solitary genius behind it. Without doubt the most important contributor – but not working in isolation.
Overall, then, yet another attempt to marry fiction and popular science that has ended up on the rocks of incompatibility. A brave attempt – and I do still believe this ought to be possible. But it is clearly very difficult to do well.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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